Get it while you can: Scavenging the remains of Detroit

DaddyHe strolled up the walkway carrying his hard-won take like it was a rare bounty, holding it up to the sky for everyone to see, his smile shining just like gold.

“I have to get something,” he said to Mom before sauntering off into the soot and smoke that second day of the 1967 riots. No one knew what to do or what to expect. But my dad had a plan. Everyone else was looting the shops smoldering on 12th Street. He decided to join in. Dressed in a dashiki, jeans, and thick strapped fisherman sandals, he looked as if he were dropped into the fray straight from Central Casting – an Angry Black Man who was more curious than furious.

Mom, who was roughly three weeks away from delivering me, their first child, tried in vain to talk him out of going. For what felt like the longest hour ever, she waited for him to return. When he did, he proudly displayed the fruits of his illicit labor: A quart of beer and a jar of Coffee Mate.

That’s all you got?” my mom asked incredulously.

“Yeah,” he replied with a straight face. “You know, it’s some greedy people out… they took everything!”

Though my dad died in 1982, his well-intentioned but flawed logic still lives on.

It lives in the rhetoric surrounding this week’s announcement of a deal for the state to lease Belle Isle from Detroit for 30-60 years.  City leaders balked, claiming the state is taking a jewel from the city we can care for ourselves, despite years of neglect and mismanagement at their hands. They claim there’s some way for Detroiters to get something for it – perhaps private sources to manage the park – without state intervention, yet no one has offered up a viable plan. Our two mayoral candidates oppose the state lease, but have not offered up alternatives. The City Council has until October 8th to vote on the lease proposal. If they vote no, the state has said it will impose the lease on the city. Council President Saunteel Jenkins has said she has plans to work on an alternative proposal… after the council vote takes place. That’s all they’ve got.

It lives in a ruling made by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes permitting the city’s labor unions to continue pursuing efforts to restore bonus checks for the city’s employees and retirees. The controversial 13th checks had been paid out for at least 20 years, taking nearly $1.9 billion in investment value from and costing the pension system roughly $3.5 billion in unfunded liabilities during that time frame. The program was halted by the city in 2011, but union leaders contend that action was illegal. Each side is trying to get something from a pension system that, due to poor decisions and misuse by those in charge, is perilously close to having nothing to give to anyone any longer.

It lives in the pronouncement Kevyn Orr made during an address at the Detroit Economic Club that there has to be a way for the city to get something from leveraging assets at the DIA (without selling them, mind you) to help cover the city’s debts. While he said he had no choice… he also said he didn’t have a concrete plan in mind.

“There’s no plan to take the bricks out from (the Rivera mural),” Mr. Orr said. He also noted he didn’t want the city’s retirees to have to choose between “a can of tuna and a can of cat food” to survive.

It lived in the aisles of a neighborhood Dollar General on Fenkell on September 29th when a man in his 20’s walked in wearing jeans, a hoodie, and gym shoes, and carrying an AR-15 assault rifle. Looking as though he were dropped into the store straight from Central Casting – an Angry Black Man whose desperation to survive made him dangerous – his armed demand for something, anything, netted him an undisclosed amount of cash. He’s still at large with the fruit of his illicit labor. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

There’s no smoke or soot billowing into the air, but the city’s still being looted by desperate people. Some carry an assault rifle. Some eye what few resources the city has left. Some act without planning. Each is determined to bring home something and grouse about how there’s not much left to take because others, much greedier than themselves, have already taken everything.

Tracey Morris

Tracey Morris is the author of, “You Said You Wanted to See Me Naked: An Autobiographical Poem Cycle.” Her work has recently been published by Rust Belt Chic Press, and she was a finalist in the 2013 Springfed Arts Writing Contest.

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  • Aletha Oberdier

    OK I thought this was going to be about all the scrappers taking shit from old houses, making it a nightmare to buy and keep a home in the city :/

  • bebow

    There is the option of choosing to be in a situation but not of it. The sum of our choices measures the content of our character. We always know what that sum amounts to for ourselves, even when defense mechanisms get busy trying to inform otherwise. Our relationship with ourselves determines everything else that happens. In Kwame’s case, taking an extreme example, we see a man who annihilated himself. What other people do should not determine our actions, because we will each fly or die according to the choices we make. We can’t do bad and be good with ourselves.

    • StretchRun

      Well said. Like I always told my kids, if you don’t stand for something, you fall for anything.

      • bebow

        Hard work doesn’t guarantee success in the way many people define it, but hard work always produces an inventory of inner treasure, which we are free to tap at any time on an unlimited basis.

  • chuckdamage

    Wow. That was a pretty powerful article. You nailed it.

  • Tracey

    A friend of mine and I were talking yesterday about all sorts of things, and one of the topics that came up was how cheaply our city officials can be bought. Monica Conyers went down for about $6,000. City building inspectors took bribes as low as $50. The late Kay Everett took several pounds of sausage as a bribe. Sausage, people. My friend said their behavior and willingness to do wrong for so little was “an embarrassment to corruption.” Think about it…an elected official whose earning a six-figure salary decides to sell out his or her constituency and risk a career for a few hundred bucks. Or, incredibly, something as petty as cured meat. And when they’re caught, they blame others for their poor choices. It’s kind of like running into a free for all because everyone else is doing it and coming out with a bottle of beer and a jar of coffee creamer.

    Why are we willing to do this to ourselves? And why are Detroiters willing to back those who are doing this sort of thing? Think about it….

  • Bob Connely

    Tracey, I always look forward to your articles – as much for the lyrical style of prose (you impose – sorry, couldn’t resist) as for the topics you bring to our attention!

    • Tracey

      Thank you, Bob! It’s so good to know that you enjoy my writing. Suppose I propose that you made my Sunday? Be well, and thanks for reading.

  • John Howard Hughes

    Great article!

    • Tracey

      Thank you, John, and I send you extra well wishes because you and my dad share the same name. Be well!